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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Looking into Hall's crystal ball


I wrote most of this before the results were announced, and had to throw out a good chunk when just Andre Dawson was actually elected. It's better this way, though. Or more interesting, anyway.

With Dawson safe in Cooperstown, we can start thinking about next year.

Fortunately for the guys who missed this year, Jeff Bagwell is the only obvious first-time candidate next year. And while he will lead the way among the first-timers, he's far from a sure thing. Bagwell's career wasn't particularly long, and he hit fewer home runs than Fred McGriff. Bagwell did have exceptional power, but a great deal of his value came from his plate discipline, his stellar defense and his canny baserunning ... all three attributes unlikely to excite any but the most sophisticated Hall of Fame voters.

So, maybe not so obvious after all. More obvious than these guys, though:

* John Franco's claim to fame is that he's No. 4 on the all-time saves list. Considering that the No. 3 man still hasn't cracked 50 percent -- this time around, he got 47 percent -- it's exceptionally unlikely that Franco will get more than a nod from a few charitable New York writers.

* Kevin Brown is sort of the anti-Jack Morris: sabermetricians love him, and Hall of Fame voters are going to hate him. After all, Brown won only 211 games and won more than 18 games in a season just once. Brown's sterling ERA -- better, in context, than any number of Hall of Famers -- won't carry much weight with the voters.

* The next time someone suggests the inevitability of a baseball player's career, you might want to relate the Tale of Juan Gone Gonzalez. Before Gonzalez turned 30, he'd hit 340 home runs. After turning 30, he hit 94. Between the home runs and the MVP Awards in 1996 and '98, Gonzalez looked like a future Hall of Fame for sure. Except now he probably will fall off the ballot after his first appearance. Nothing is inevitable.

* John Olerud, like Will Clark before him, is terribly underappreciated. Olerud just didn't play long enough, and it doesn't help that so much of his value came in the form of walks. Like Gonzalez, he'll be one and done, his .398 career on-base percentage little but a number on a computer screen.

* Rafael Palmeiro is sort of the anti-Juan Gonzalez. Both were longtime Texas Rangers, and both will do fairly poorly next year. But while Gonzalez did most of his damage as a young man, Palmeiro did most of his as an old man; his 414 home runs after turning 30 are topped by only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. And where Gonzalez's Hall of Fame candidacy was derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness, Palmeiro's was thrown off the tracks by a failed drug test. One more difference: while Gonzalez's fate will be decided quickly (and negatively), Palmeiro's immense career numbers -- including 569 homers and more than 3,000 hits -- will keep him on the ballot and will someday result in his election.

* Larry Walker never had a bad year. Oh, he was hurt a few times and didn't manage to stay in the lineup as often as he'd have liked. But in every season of his career, Walker was a better-than-average major league hitter (and usually much better than average). Like Will Clark, Walker finished his career by posting excellent numbers as a part-time St. Louis Cardinal. And like Clark, Walker might be underrated in some quarters because of his home ballpark. But where Clark suffered the depressing effects of San Francisco's Candlestick Park, Walker's reputation has suffered from the inflationary nature of Coors Field.

With Bagwell the only viable candidate joining the ballot next year, most of the holdovers will gain support. Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven need to gain just a tiny bit of support -- Blyleven fell five votes short this year, Alomar eight votes -- and both will make it. Which won't leave a lot of room for anyone else. Bagwell might make it, or he might not. As I noted earlier today, there were a lot of big-hitting first basemen in Bagwell's era, and it's not clear that he did enough to distinguish himself in the minds of the voters. On the first ballot, anyway.

If not 2011, perhaps 2012 ... and 2012 has to be the target for just about every current candidate not named Alomar or Blyleven or (perhaps) Bagwell. In 2012, the best candidate joining the ballot will be Bernie Williams, who might be the only new candidate to draw enough support (at least five percent) to remain on the ballot for another year.

In 2013, though?

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza.

In 2014: Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, and Frank Thomas.

After 2014: Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera, Ivan Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman, Omar Vizquel, Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey, Chipper Jones, etc.

The voters' failure to elect Alomar and Blyleven this year will have little impact on those two, because they're shoo-ins next year. However, their mere presence on the 2011 ballot will cost Jack Morris and Barry Larkin some support. But that might not matter, either. With both just clearing 50 percent this year, getting to 75 percent in just two years would have been a tall order regardless of who's on (or off) the ballot next year.

Next year, Alomar and Blyleven will take their rightful places in Cooperstown. Bagwell will fall short, but he'll benefit from the paucity of top candidates in 2012 and become the first real Houston Astro in the Hall of Fame. And everyone else? Including Barry Larkin and Tim Raines, both of whom were better ballplayers than Andre Dawson and Jim Rice? If they have a real chance, it's too many years out for us to see.